by Amanda Gerber, Fellow IACer, seeking to understand the Christian seasons and bring them into daily life
“Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
“Thanks be to God.”
(Cue closing song.)
Wait a minute, is it just me, or is something missing here?
Actually, it’s not just me. Beginning this Sunday, and continuing through March, our church services will end this way. We are about to enter the season of Lent, and for a whole 6 weeks, there will be no “Alleluias” as we are sent out. Is this some kind of cruel joke? How dare they take out one of the best and most joyful parts of the service?
As it turns out, this fasting from the Alleluias is a sign of a deeper reality, one that isn’t depressing, but rather brings hope.
The praise we offer, our Alleluias, are nothing on their own. It is only because of the gospel, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because He accomplished that which we were powerless to do, that our praise has any meaning at all. We symbolically fast from the Alleluia for the sake of a greater Alleluia, the Alleluia of Easter morning, when we celebrate that glorious truth that Jesus has conquered sin, death, and hell, and has accomplished our salvation and reconciled us to the Father.
Act One of the liturgical calendar (Advent/Christmas/Epiphany) focused on the incarnation of Jesus, while Act Two hones in on His death and resurrection, beginning with this season we call Lent.
Lent (from the word “Lencten”, meaning long, or to lengthen, referring to the lengthening of daytime at this time of year) is a preparatory and anticipatory season that comes before Easter. It’s a season to gaze upon the cross of Jesus, a season of repentance that calls us to return to God in our hearts, minds, and actions. It invites us to make space in our hearts and time in our schedules for God. It’s full of joy, hope, and healing because we know that, as we take an honest look at the state of our hearts, we are never too far gone from God’s redeeming grace.
This year, Lent begins on February 14, Ash Wednesday and ends March 31, the day before Easter Sunday. It lasts 40 days not including Sundays.
The short answer? To prepare our hearts to celebrate the Resurrection.
The same way we need Advent to prepare our hearts for Christmas, all the more do we need Lent to prepare our hearts for Easter, one of the most significant events in history. We benefit from physical, tangible reminders that go beyond new clothes and Easter baskets (though these are great), that point us to deeper spiritual realities and to the grand story we’re part of. Liturgies and traditions that involve our minds, hearts, and senses are powerful to shape our imaginations and combat our apathy and forgetfulness. Lent helps us to become less distracted and to slow down so we can take stock of our lives and our hearts.
The church has realized the merits of a season like Lent since its earliest years, and this matters. This church spans both space (i.e. we are connected to believers in every part of the world) and, in this case, time (i.e. Christianity throughout the last 2,000 years.)
It’s not just me and my Bible; it’s the communal, relational Body of Christ, and thankfully we have years upon years of God working in the lives of humans to look to.
Before we get to Easter, we need to go back to the beginning of this story…we need Lent. Because the way to new life comes…through death.
Running from Death
Unlike Americans of the not-so-distant past and those living in present-day third-world countries, death is not a reality that constantly stares us in the face. Or, at least, that’s what we think.
We often avoid talking about death and live as though our only hope lies in the now. We claim there’s hope for eternity, but how much of our daily lives are actually spent living in fear of death and motivated by avoiding it at all costs? Advanced medical care, airbags, a never-ending supply of food and clean water, home security systems … all of these are good things. But the danger comes when they give us an illusion of control, when we put our trust in them.
Just because we aren’t daily threatened by starvation, death in childbirth, genocide, or religious persecution doesn’t mean we aren’t ourselves staring death in the face. The reality is we all are. We resist weakness and helplessness, and it often isn’t until we face a life-threatening diagnosis, a tragedy, or approach old age that we are really faced with the reality of death. With the way our culture treats death, it’s no wonder that we see old age as a slow, sad fade rather than a triumphant approach to the finish line.
In a sense, it’s not surprising that we want to avoid death. We weren’t created for death — we are destined for eternal life. But the path to that life travels squarely through the cross. We are called to follow Jesus in the way He forged, denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses. The glorious news is that while we are plunged under the water in a symbolic drowning, dying to ourselves in baptism, we are raised up into the life Christ has so generously given to us, a life that is better than anything we could imagine — abundant life, that begins now. We fully partake in the victory He has secured for those who believe. We weren’t created for death, but neither are we to fear it.
Lent teaches us that “we are dust and to dust we will return.” To refuse to acknowledge our mortality has serious implications for life now. When we put our hope in our present circumstances, or in something or someone other than Jesus Himself, our hope is misplaced and false. And false hope is no hope at all. The first question of “A New City Catechism” (a great tool we like for teaching the doctrines of the Christian faith) asks, “What is our only hope in life and death?” The answer? “That we are not our own but belong to God.” I teach this to my kids, but it’s I who need this reminder daily, and it plays over and over in my head. This is our only hope. We cannot save ourselves. And as this truth sinks deeper into our hearts, it can bring great, great comfort.
Death on its own is bad news, but the good news is that we belong to a God who has fully conquered sin and death and accomplished our salvation. And we need not be afraid to look straight to the heart of what we needed saving from. Just because we no longer live under condemnation doesn’t mean we should live unaware of the magnitude of what had to be overcome for us to be in this position. Repentance is a discipline of Lent that forms that awareness in us.
Why do we repent if God has already forgiven us?
Why would we observe this penitential season of Lent? Believers don’t lose God’s forgiveness when we sin, yet Jesus Himself taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We repent out of obedience, knowing that God has a purpose for us in that practice. He knows we are prone to wander; He knows we so easily forget. Repentance and confession should be a regular spiritual discipline for Christians, and Lent allows us to dedicate a whole season to lean into it more deeply.
Repentance doesn’t invite shame and condemnation; it invites freedom. There’s a difference between knowing in our heads that we have been forgiven by God and actually experiencing it. When we can look our sin square in the face, when we’re not afraid to admit how dark and sinful our hearts can be and can simultaneously know that we no longer bear any of its weight, that we are forgiven, pardoned, cleansed, no longer guilty… this is good news, and what a joyous opportunity we have to encounter it more deeply! Lent isn’t for despairing, but for entering into greater joy.
Some of us are “younger brothers”, needing to be reminded to take our actions seriously and to remember that our sinful actions grieve God. Others of us are “older brothers”, hiding behind our religiosity and good works. We feel like we are doing all right on our own, but the truth is that we are all broken, all the way down.
So, whoever we are, we are called to repent of our sin — our indifference toward God and our desire to be lord of our own lives — and we do this not just in our minds but in our actions. God’s saving work isn’t just one point in time; it continues in us through sanctification. His mercy does not say “you are forgiven” and then leave us comfortably where we are. No, in His mercy He leaves no area of our lives untouched, and He wants for us greater and greater freedom from the oppression of sin and the evil one.
Repentance isn’t just a nice feeling we have — it’s the road into new way of living, into the kingdom of God. And the disciplines of Lent invite us to enter in to this new way of life.
The Spiritual Disciplines of Lent
Church tradition prescribes to us the Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, the precedent for which we find in Matthew 6. As you read, remember that these disciplines don’t earn us greater favor from God, but rather reflect God’s redemption of the relationships that were broken in the Fall. The good news is that the process doesn’t begin with us. And there’s great hope in realizing that we don’t have to wait until some future day to begin experiencing reconciliation—God’s kingdom begins now. And as with any discipline, it’s okay that we don’t always “feel like” doing them. We can trust the Holy Spirit’s work, teaching us to love the right things and empowering us to do them despite our weakness. And these habits and practices we partake in, even when difficult, in turn form our hearts to love what is good.
Fasting is probably the first thing you think of when someone mentions Lent. Unfortunately there’s a version of Lenten fasting that is a competition-like, social-media-driven show that flies in the face of what it’s intended to be.
Rather, fasting is a tangible expression of our inner conversion. We are reconciled to God through Christ, but we are also, in a sense, reconciled to a more truly human version of ourselves. We are no longer slaves to our sinful nature. Jesus’ power in our lives gives us power over the desires of the flesh.
Matthew 6:16-18 says, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
It’s traditional to fast on Fridays during Lent. More often than not, fasting involves giving up food, and it could look like only eating one meal on Fridays, going without food completely that day, not eating meat, or something else. It’s up to you to decide. Lee Nelson says that “one can fast from anything that assaults the appetites. The purpose of fasting is to bring about hunger in order to put those appetites in their proper place. So food is not the only possibility.” As we experience that hunger, we can allow it to create in us a hunger for good, a hunger for deeper relationship for God, a “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Another version of fasting could more accurately be called “abstinence.” This is what we typically think of when we talk about giving up Facebook, cake, movies, or Starbucks for the entirety of Lent. It can be food related or not.
One big thing to remember is that we don’t have to fast from something that’s bad, just something that will make an impact—something that we’ll feel. We don’t need to use it as another chance at our New Year’s resolution or to go on a diet and lose weight or to finally follow our doctor’s advice to stop eating sugar. We might indeed reap physical or emotional benefits from our fast, but that isn’t the focus, and it’s better to choose something that you don’t plan to give up forever.
However you decide to go about it, the important thing to remember is that we fast from something for the sake of something greater. Fasting isn’t meant to exist on its own. We fast from one thing so that we can replace it with something else, often with the practices of giving and prayer. But be creative. You could fast from Facebook and replace it with face-to-face fellowship and conversation. You could fast from Starbucks and give that money to a cause you care about. You could fast from listening to music in the car (obviously not bad) to embrace the silence and make space for prayer. You could fast from your microwave and embrace the slowness and inefficiency it leaves. We fast from the Alleluia because we feel it, we notice it, and those Easter Alleluias are worth the wait and will taste even better. We fast to make space in our lives for God to enter in. And no one would deny that we could use that space.
Another important thing to remember is that we always feast on Sundays. (Sundays are not even included in the 40 days of Lent, meaning the season itself lasts longer than 40 days.) Greg Goebel encourages us to “remember…that the fast is not the focus of Lent. The future feast is the focus, and fasting is a way to prepare for that feast. . . . Lent is actually the ‘exception’ to our Feasting. Fasting is a temporary part of our life, while we await the Bridegroom’s return. Fasting will pass away, but feasting will remain forever.” On Sundays we feast, because every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection. Even in Lent, we taste Easter. We don’t fast in despair; we fast because we know the ending, that we are waiting for something good to come.
I admit that I kind of hate fasting. I stink at fasting. And that’s why I need it. The pendulums of my Lenten fasts usually swing between Pharisaical, legalistic perfection, and apathetic, half-hearted attempts that only last a few days. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, don’t stress, don’t give up, and remember God’s grace, which isn’t dependent on our success or failure. And it’s not all about us. Our fasting turns our gaze off of our own selves so that it may be turned toward others, which is exactly what the next discipline helps us do.
Almsgiving is a tangible expression of the truth that we can be reconciled with our neighbor, even and especially those who have nothing to offer us in return or those we don’t particularly like. We can give generously and sacrificially, not out of guilt but, again, for the sake of something greater, knowing that we’ve been given much. In giving, others needs are met, and we experience greater freedom from the shackles of materialism and consumerism. Giving can obviously be of our money, but also of our time, our words, our care, our food, a space at our tables, and more.
Matthew 6:2-4 says: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
We need to care about the states of our hearts and our motivations for giving, and we also need to care deeply about the recipients of our gifts. Steven Saint writes this of his experience with people groups in Africa, Asia, and South America who live simply and materially contentedly:
I have learned that it is unreasonable to evaluate their “lack” based on our distorted and exaggerated perception of need. When we try to meet phantom needs of people who live at a lower material standard than we have learned to consider “minimal,” we not only fall into a trap that keeps us from seeing their real needs, but we also tempt them into a snare that can raise their perception of need beyond what their economy can support.
We must be intentional as we give, and we must remember that we too are needy. I so appreciate IAC’s humble posture towards the global church, and especially our relationship with Rwanda, that helps me see this.
To give, we need to also see clearly how much we’ve been given and not to become tight-fisted givers. My friend Amy Lee (an Anselm Society member artist) writes, “Beauty and generosity, hospitality and celebration—these often have the power to loosen our clasp on our contributions and reorient us in the best way: For before we are givers, we are recipients first, of grace upon grace.” (I highly recommend reading the rest of her powerful piece.)
We won’t single-handedly end poverty or save the world, and thankfully that’s not our job, but we are invited to be part of it. Start small, (perhaps by something as simple as inviting a neighbor over for dinner), but start somewhere.
Prayer, the third discipline of Lent, is a tangible outworking of our reconciliation with God. We can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Heb 4:16). We no longer have to rely on animal sacrifices and high priests; we ourselves can come before God and converse with Him in intimate relationship. This isn’t a small thing.
Again Matthew 6:5-8 says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Jesus provided a model for praying when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer, and we needn’t shy away from more structured forms of prayer. Tish Harrison Warren asks:
But what if prayer is more than simply self-expression? What if prayer is a kind of craft or exercise that shapes us? What if God uses prayer to “act back on us,” to form us? What if set liturgical prayers are an ancient tool that reframe our perspectives and desires so that we might learn to pray in ways that are beyond us?
Our family has specifically taken Lent as an opportunity to lean into the practice of “praying the hours.” We try to do this together once a day. Check on Pastor Ken’s blog post on this and consider using the daily devotion link from our website. The Book of Common Prayer has also been a great tool for our family.
Jesus condemned fasting in order to be noticed, charity in order to look good, and praying so that people would admire you. We don’t want external motions that never reach our hearts. But we’re missing out if we give up on the power of habit, tradition, and ritual completely. It’s true that works don’t earn our salvation, but they’re an outpouring of what we already have, and they remind us of who we are.
Also, if we fast, give, and pray during Lent, we have to take care not to be so rigid that we’re actually inconsiderate or self-righteous toward others. We’re called to be people of hospitality, a hospitality that goes beyond inviting people over for dinner by seeking the best for others however we can.
Fasting, giving, and prayer are extremely private, in the sense that we do not do them in order to gain attention and praise from other people. But they are also very public, in the sense that the ripple effect of these practices in our own lives will hopefully also do good in the lives of others.
The Dark Side of Lent
Sometimes I want to avoid Lent because it feels too dark and gloomy. But we don’t have to be afraid to look around at the world and see that all is not as it should be. It’s not. It’s begun. It’s coming. But we’re in that time between redemption and restoration. And we ourselves are not who we were meant to be. We can see this as bad news, but it’s actually very good news. Because this is not all there is. And because we are not in charge of becoming the people we’re meant to be. But God promises that He is making all things new, including us.
It’s okay to not understand it all. It’s okay to cry out to God with our doubts and questions. It’s appropriate to lament and cry out for justice. We aren’t to make peace with the brokenness of this world. To not acknowledge sin and darkness, whether in ourselves or in the world, isn’t merciful; it’s making peace with oppression because sin is the most oppressive force we know. We’re allowed to see the world as it is, but we need to also have a vision for where it’s going.
Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, known for her testimony in the Larry Nassar case, has this to say:
One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like “God works all things together for good” or “God is sovereign.” Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.
We’re afraid to be real about our sin because it hurts too much. Afraid to be vulnerable. Afraid to live in the light. But we need not gloss over the devastation, or sugarcoat life, or shield our kids from the darkness.
What we can do is “humble ourselves” and “pray” and “seek His face” and “turn from our wicked ways.” We can call out to God and He will “forgive our sin and heal the land” (2 Chron 7:14) The purpose of Lent isn’t despair, but hope and healing.
Practical ideas for Lent:
- Biola University’s Lent Project. Don’t underestimate the power of beauty in our lives. Biola does a fabulous job of bringing together art, music, poetry, and scripture to teach us (more than just intellectually) in this season. In a similar vein, IACer Tara Owens recommends this “literary guide to prayer.”
- Ash Wednesday. Join our church on Wednesday, February 14, at 8am or 6pm. You don’t want to miss it.
- Journey Through Lent cards. Use them to walk through the symbols of Lent with your kids. Pick some up at church or print them here. Another great hands-on idea for kids is something called Resurrection Eggs.
- Sign up for Lenten Classes. See IAC notes for more.
- Meditate on Psalm 51. Print it out where you can see it. Read it together often. Perhaps memorize it. (If you’re feeling ambitious, chant it.) It encapsulates Lent very nicely.
- Music for Lent:
- To Sing: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “What Wondrous Love Is This,” “Abide With Me,” “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Man of Sorrows (What a Name),” “Were You There?,” “Nothing But the Blood”
- Playlists: Lent with Sacred Ordinary Days, Brother by The Brilliance, Traditional Lent
- Share below your favorite ideas for entering into Lent! I’d love to learn more!
Remember, as you make your plans, that this isn’t a chance to add more pressure and more requirements and more lists to your already-full plate. Only take on during Lent what you can do from a place of rest and freedom.
Finally, take some time to reflect on this beautiful poem.
“Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ within them.
Fast from emphasis on difference; feast on the unity of life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from worry; feast on trust in God’s Care.
Fast from unrelenting pressure; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on verities that uplift.
Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of serenity.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragements; feast on hope.”
-William Arthur Ward (American author, teacher and pastor, 1921-1994)